Nearly everything you think of water water contradicts, shapeless thing taking the shape of what holds it. Fire, water’s antithesis, blooms in the deep belly of the ocean, home to most of the Earth’s volcanic activity. In the desert, a sheer abundance of water carved rock into a spectacle amid hundreds of miles of barren dryness.
Both environment and beverage, an external body impossible to live in naturally but essential to ingest into our own bodies (themselves a majority water).
The precursor to organic life and God’s most infamous destroyer of it. Substance and nexus; solid, liquid, and neither. Describing it is like posing a bad riddle.
Water is a compound equal parts chaos and control. (There are whole countries for which this isn’t metaphor.) Collect a bit of even the wildest, most violent storm in a glass and you’ve tamed it, wouldn’t know it from Kona Nigari without taking a sip.
The will of water is almost always ultimately its own, often in spite of an outward appearance of containment. A river flows only where its banks take it, but those walls were first carved by the water itself, a sort of chicken-or-the-egg scenario where water is probably the answer.
Example: In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers spent 8 years straightening Florida’s notoriously winding Kissimmee River, both as a response to hurricane-season floods and as a means of accommodating the region’s booming population. As a result, the river flowed significantly faster into Lake Okeechobee, which drastically altered local ecosystems, knocking out well over half the population of several local waterfowl species and polluting one of the country’s largest lakes with nitrogen and phosphorus. Four decades and $1 billion later, the world’s largest river restoration project has the river more or less appropriately meandering again.
Nearly every known ancient religion featured some form of water deity, or at least a god responsible for the output of water. And yet despite prayer, ritual, and sacrifice, whole civilizations have been lost to drought alone.
In Genesis’s version of the creation and flood myths, the Hebrew word for flood can be translated as chaos: God used water to create the world by entropy and allowed entropy to rewrite it. Meanwhile, in History of the Devil, Daniel Defoe writes that Satan “has, in consequence of his angelic nature, a kind of empire in the liquid waste of air.”
The source of all life on earth, water is virtually a god in and of itself. And, like so many of our gods, the truth is it’s entirely indifferent to us, would get along just fine without us (in reality, much better).
In a dive bar just outside a still storm-wrecked neighborhood in New Orleans, this, graffitied in a bathroom stall: the water dont give 2 shits about your Benz.
Water was our first mirror. Narcissus (son of a river god) was cursed to fall in love with his reflection in a pool after rejecting Echo, who could only speak to others by resounding their own words back to them. Narcissus wasted away reaching for an image of a boy he couldn’t hold, a body as lovely as the one lingering over it. Meanwhile Echo at the water’s edge became a quietness waiting for a voice.
The story of Echo and Narcissus is, like half of water’s stories, one of creation. It tells the origin of echoes, of daffodils, of narcissism (a term we wouldn’t coin until the 19th century). Reflections create an image of our selves in two dimensions, an other to idolize and wither away worshiping. Praise of any idol is an endless re-creation of the original beauty that inspired it, a voice draining into silence in the woods. This is the folly of the desire for youth (a vain distilling of the wonder of creation itself, of new and innocent things), a continual attempt to preserve an image always fading into the past and contain that image within our own aging bodies.
As much as we try to hold that image, no matter how tightly, it can’t stop running out through the tiny gaps in our basket of fingers.
How else can we know a thing than by asking for a response, even in our own voices? Maybe water only has the answers we can give it: shout a question over a lake and it answers itself; stare into a quiet pool and find yourself rippling.
Bryce Emley is the author of the prose chapbooks A Brief Family History of
Drowning (winner of the 2018 Sonder Press Chapbook Prize) and Smoke and
Glass (Folded Word, 2018). He works in marketing at the University of New
Mexico Press and is Poetry Editor of Raleigh Review. Read more at